My Architect: A Son's Journey

This last year has seen the release of what was easily documentary film’s most over-hyped and, frankly, over-emphasized examples of sensationalized movie making. Thanks to their shamelessness, films like Farentheit 9/11 and Super Size Me have drug the creative and generally intelligent name of documentary filmmaking through the mud. Blame reality TV or MTV or whoever you want. It doesn’t mean that much when compared to the excellent documentaries still being produced. My Architect: A Son’s Journey is an example of such excellence. What can you say about a piece of work that doesn’t bow down to the regular demands of commercial filmmaking? I’m not talking about a movie like Sky Captain or Memento or some other film that in some way departed from the movie norm. What I’m referring to are the types of films that don’t have a script, don’t have fictionalized characters and don’t get a second take if the camera forgets to role the first time through.

There are no acting performances to critique or plot holes to poke fun at in those movies. Only captured moments of reality that often produce a final product more dramatic and moving than anything Hollywood could concoct. It’s a format in which mistakes can easily be made resulting in a shoddy final product. But My Architect succeeds in telling a beautiful story using only those authentic moments that are so unique to documentary films.

In 1974 a man, traveling alone, collapsed in a train station bathroom. A short time later he died. That man, Louis I. Kahn was one of America’s greatest modern architects. Never heard of him? That’s OK, most people haven’t, but among architects he is regarded as a modern legend. His works are few, but they are considered masterpieces.

Just as striking as his career in architecture were the peculiarities of his personal life. He was a married man with a single daughter, and that was the only family people knew about…or at least spoke of. In actuality he had two other families, and each of his mistresses had a child apiece. One of those children, Nathaniel Kahn, had spent very little time with his father Louis before the man’s tragic train station death. My Architect: A Son’s Journey is Nathaniel’s touching quest to discover the father he never knew through the people Louis worked with and the incredible structures he left behind.

Kahn has created a film pilgrimage that explores both the magnificence of his father’s works, the qualities that led his father’s peers to refer to him as a genious mystic artist, and the immense sorrow he himself experienced growing up as a seemingly unwanted illegitimate son. The balance between them develops into a remarkable journey that is as tragic as it is inspiring. The skillful director is as innovative with his camera techniques as he is with words. Stunning shots of the elder Kahn’s architecture are pieces of art unto themselves. Likewise the younger Kahn’s unassuming but brilliant research and interviewing methods quietly trace the lines of his father’s life and Nathaniel gently extracts the stories and details from the people who knew him the best.

Watching this film (and documentaries in general) isn’t for everyone, but the broad appeal of My Architect makes it an experience any movie lover could, and should enjoy. If nothing else, it’s worth watching just to glimpse the beauty of Louis Kahn’s architecture and to be able to understand just how much a man can leave of himself in the works he leaves behind. Some movies have a beautiful simplicity. They don’t need a lot of fanfare or special bonus features to flush out the viewing experience. My Architect is just such a film, and its unadorned DVD release seems fitting. Still, there a few basics missing, leaving the disc feeling like it was rushed to market in time for the Academy Awards, an event for which the movie is nominated for “Best Documentary Feature”.

First the short list: the things you will find. Apart from the film itself, you’ll find the film’s original theatrical trailer. It’s a nice addition since most people (excepting you few genuine souls who still frequent the artsy movie houses) will never have seen it before – it’s not the kind of thing that gets shown prior to Hitch. Following that is a disappointingly abbreviated version of a director question and answer session that Kahn held at a screening for his film. The questions that were included are broken down into individual segments (one for each query) and utilize extra footage not seen in the film. That makes them pleasant to skim through, but with most of the segments being very short, it makes for a lot of annoying DVD remote button pushing. Where’s the “Play All” option when you need it?

Those are literally the only bonus features to speak of. There aren’t even any subtitles. Even the English speaking hard of hearing are just plain out of luck. Also tragically absent is commentary from the director. Nathaniel Kahn has obviously poured more of his soul into this one film than most directors will give to their entire lifetime careers. It would have been a nice touch to hear him talking in depth about the experience as we watch his masterful cinematography parade across the screen.

Speaking of cinematography, the 200 some odd hours of footage shot for this film must have included some extremely interesting images of the many master works of Louis Kahn. Since that architecture is a keystone of the film, some kind of video (or even still image) gallery of Kahn’s structures would have been a nice touch. Much needed is some kind of opportunity to further explore the beauty we were only teased with in the film.

It’s sad to see such a great film rushed to the mainstream market for the sole purpose of coinciding with an awards ceremony, but at the very least it’s good to just to be able to see it. If you want to sound smart at the water cooler after this movie wins an Oscar, forgive its simplistic DVD faults and pick up a copy tonight.